Our nine day people-to-people adventure ended in the city of Havana. It was the culmination of a trip that was a long time in the making. Throughout the trip, we met amazing entrepreneurs and artisans, traveled to UNESCO World Heritage sites, and experienced the everyday life of Cuba. It was one of the most eye-opening and enriching adventures. As a traveler, going to Cuba requires some flexibility, especially with the lack of conveniences like internet and ATMs, but everything is worth it in order to visit during this special transition time in history. Things are changing fast in Cuba that is is hard to keep up. During the month we visited, the travel restrictions were gradually easing up, free enterprise was creeping in, and flight routes from the US were being restored. The world is a bigger place. It is a moment in time that will never be the same for Cuba, and an opportunity to photograph it all. If you are traveling to Cuba, be sure to download our walking tour guide.
Check out the behind the scenes video here:
Music Credit: Celia Cruz "Quimbara" | All videos shot with iPhone 6 | Editing: iMovie
Havana is lively, expressive, soulful, and filled with eye candy (colorful cars in every direction, architecture, plazas). Before embarking on this trip, I heard from other travels that Havana is like being on a movie set of an old film. It is filled with cars from the 1950s, facades of elegant buildings, and a noticeable lack of consumerism. It is encapsulated in time. When I first saw images of this city, I immediately knew I had to go there, and there was no better time than the present.
Cuba is a musical country and Havana is the epicenter. The Afro-Cuban drum beats reverberate down every corner. Celia Cruz's "Guantanamera" and Buena Vista Social Club tunes can be heard down ever street. The musical talent in Cuba is pervasive - it seems as though everyone can sing or play an instrument. It is a natural talent that cannot be forced. In fact, the best performances I witnessed in Cuba were impromptu performances. Dancing occurs at the spur of the moment. Our Cuban barista invited us for a dance while we waited for the famous Cuban coffee to brew. It seems as the locals are always on the verge of a party. And with "vitamin R" (aka Rum), it isn't hard to do. It is this type of inhibition that I have never experienced in any other country thus far.
Everything is a detailed production in Cuba. Cigars, for example, are one of Cuba's finest exports and are hand made and manufactured in Havana. The tobacco leaves are harvested separately for fillers and wrappers with the goal of delivering maximum aroma. The color of the product alone is under strict quality control to meet a certain hue of brown. Many of the cigar rollers we met have been working at this craft for decades. Similarly, the auto detailing skills exhibited by the people turn mechanic work into an art-form. Every part of the car is carefully restored to look like its original state - all done with no modern tools. We visited the owners of Nostalgicar Cuba, a mechanic shop that rents restored cars to taxi drivers. He explained that he works off of passion and not money. It is truly inspiring to see this kind of ingenuity.
There are surprises down every street. Some streets have perfectly restored architecture, while others are literally crumbling and their frames barely held up by scaffolding. There is an intense sense of community throughout the country, even in a city with two million people like Havana. Everyone seems to know each other and there is a sense of cooperation and getting-alongness among the people. A few familiar faces kept popping up along the streets - Che Guevara, Jose Marti, and Pope Francis, who coincidentally paid a historic visit to the Greek Orthodox Church during our trip. His face is everywhere with the word "Bienvenido". I asked the Cubans what they thought of his visit, and they said that he is a very popular figure because he brings hope and helps facilitate relations between the other countries.
It is interesting to see how the Cuban people are able to rise above challenges and adapt to new changes. During the Special Period, we learned how the Cuban people used creative ways to make due with what they have. Today, they have bounced back from the 1990's economic downturn and there are new forms of free enterprise emerging. We visited countless "paladars" (privately owned restaurants) and "casa particulares" (bed and breakfasts), which advertise onAirBNB. There are farmers markets, where Cubans can buy extra food outside of the normal supply provided at ration stores. There are even wifi hotspots in the plazas where Cubans can be found with their tablets and smartphones. There is new media exposure. Our tour guide said that Facebook is very popular among the people. Even the Super Bowl was broadcast in the hotel lobby bar (although no one was watching). It made me wonder how little we know about Cuba and how much they may know about us. With all this progress, there are many more advancements needed, so only time will tell what comes next.
Before our trip, we were asked why we wanted to visit Cuba. One fellow traveler remarked how it's a country without a Machu Picchu or wonder of the world, but it offers so much in culture and history that the people are like the Machu Picchu. I have to agree. This trip was not only educational but also a photographer's paradise. It was a chance to see the Cuba of now, before all the changes. It may not be a perfect world, but there is a resurgence of hope. Many people in Cuba remarked that they hoped our visit will raise awareness on the embargo. Others remarked about how they hoped that Cuba will stay the way it is, in fear that it will become another Miami. It is easy to get caught up in the hypotheticals - what Cuba could have been, and what it will become. One thing is for sure - travel gives hope. There is so much we can learn from Cuba and vice versa and the people-to-people aspect of the trip helped build bridges between our cultures.
Here are the top sights to photograph in Havana:
Check out the gallery of Cuba here!
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